Race and Sexual Orientation in Baldwin’s Literature

When I first read Giovanni’s Room, a book written by the Black Civil Rights activist James Baldwin, I saw nothing wrong with the fact that the main character of the book, David, was white. Race in this publication is not something pertinent to the narrative, but there is something, still, about both— race and homosexuality— that underscores a common tribulation at the time of its publication: social prejudice and the alienation that targets these already marginalized groups. Baldwin writes in such a striking manner that emphasizes the shame and guilt that follows both groups, knowing quite well that, much like race, homosexuality is not something that can be removed through cleansing. There is a quite interesting and recurring symbol of salt that travels from the middle of the book to its last page showing how social and personal perceptions can damage the inner being. In the third chapter of the second book, David is trying to empathize with Giovanni’s situation after he loses his job concluding “He had been bruised, so to speak, so badly that the eyes of strangers lacerated him like salt” (Baldwin, 314). The villainy of Giovanni for actions did not commit was visible in his expression, almost palpable. In the end, Balwin comes back to this metaphor once again to express the feelings of David himself, “that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it is never as vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life” (Baldwin, 380). Here, David is trying to mourn Giovanni’s death by guillotine, finding the sharp edges of this simple, but destructive, mineral a comparable analogy for the memory of his past. While salt can tear your skin from the outside, similar to social and individual shame, it is still not something capable of removing what is on the inside. Salt and shame will not make you any less black in the same way as it will not make you any less gay. Josep M. Armengol writes an article about Giovanni’s Room exploring the issues of Homosexuality and Race and points out that Baldwin’s publishers, “rejected Giovanni’s Room due to its explicit homosexual content, warning the writer that such a book ‘would ruin his reputation . . . and he was advised to burn the manuscript’” (Armengol, 671), but I think if his publishers would have truly understood the message behind the book, they would have dissented to the idea that this is not something that can be so easily suppressed.

One thought on “Race and Sexual Orientation in Baldwin’s Literature”

  1. I found your focus on the symbol of salt really interesting. This is definitely not something I noticed while reading but I found it very creative and relevant to the context of David dealing with Giovanni’s execution. The sharp edges of salt have the power to harm you but at the same time salt has the ability to completely alter the subtance of something, for example when you put too much salt in your food, it is ruined. When thinking about salt in this way, I agree with you that the symbolism of salt is quite interesting and it has the power to damage you the inner being and the outer being.

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